Niyo: Linden’s Boston win is one of American will

John Niyo
Desiree Linden of the U.S. celebrates after crossing the finish line as the winner of the 2018 and 122nd Boston Marathon.

Year after year, Lisa Larsen Rainsberger kept watching — and waiting. For the crowd to roar, and the anthem to play, and then for the phone to ring. Since 1985, the former Battle Creek resident and University of Michigan All-American has proudly held the title as the last American woman to win the Boston Marathon. But for some time now, she’s been eager to relinquish it.

So when the phone finally rang late Monday morning at her home in Colorado Springs, less than an hour after Michigan’s Desiree Linden made history with a triumphant Patriots’ Day victory in Boston, she laughed and admitted, “I’m still crying!”

They were tears of joy, she said, and Rainsberger was not alone, as Linden’s win in Boston reverberated throughout the American distance-running community, a hard-fought struggle through brutal weather conditions Monday symbolizing the larger effort at play in a sport that champions suffering.

“This is hands-down the biggest day of my running career,” said Linden, a California native who moved to Michigan in 2006 to live and train with the Hansons-Brooks Distance Project team based in Rochester Hills. “And if it wasn’t difficult, it wouldn’t mean as much.”

But just what it meant to win, after years of chasing down this elusive feeling — enduring all the pain along the way — that’s something that almost left Linden speechless.

“I don’t have the right words,” she said, still shaking from the elements — and the emotion — shortly after crossing the finish line first in 2:39.54, a slow slog through the rain and gusting headwinds on a bone-chilling day. “I love this city, this race, this course. It's storybook.”

And this was the ending she’d long dreamed of, through the thousands of miles of training and more than a decade of marathon racing, working with coaches Kevin and Keith Hanson and leaning on her husband, Ryan Linden, a fellow distance runner — and now a triathlete — whom she met not long after she’d survived her first Michigan winter.

"To me, when I think about the marathon,” Linden told me years ago, “it's always Boston."

And now it’s hers — always — after a gritty and grueling performance Monday, the 34-year-old shaking off her own early-race struggles and seizing control when others faltered on a day that dawned as ugly as predicted. The thermometer registered 38 degrees when the race started at 9:32 a.m., and the wind-chill was below freezing with the rain falling in sheets, at times, just as many had feared — and just as Linden and her coaches had quietly hoped. 

“I thought her chances of victory improved tenfold just based on the forecast carrying out through the week as it did,” Kevin Hanson said. 

Determined to win

Linden’s strength in the marathon is her tactical ability, her race-day strategy and discipline. It’s also her toughness, though, as a 5-foot-1, 98-pound bulldog who may not have the track speed of some of the other elite marathoners but does have an indomitable will. The perfect traits, really, for this iconic Boston race, where she'd made her marathon debut in a nor'easter back in 2007.

“She always wants to make the race longer, make people hurt for a longer period of time,” added Hanson, one half of the sibling duo of shoe-store owners who decided to buck the system and start their own group-training distance program here in metro Detroit back in 1999. 

Desiree Linden charges toward the finish line.

The idea was to recreate the successful U.S. model that existed in the 1970s and early-1980s, when Bill Rodgers and the Greater Boston Track Club were at the forefront of a running boom in the United States. And while Linden isn’t their first major success story, or maybe even their most talented athlete, she’s the flag bearer, for sure, a two-time Olympian who’d already cemented herself as a blue-collar U.S. star on the women’s side. 

Linden, who splits time between a home in Washington Township and a cottage on Lake Charlevoix in northern Michigan, just hadn’t managed a breakthrough win in a major marathon yet, though she’d come achingly close before in Boston, losing a back-and-forth sprint duel down Boylston Street to Kenya’s Caroline Kilel by a mere 2 seconds in 2011. (Her 2:22.38 clocking that day made her the third-fastest American woman in history at the 26.2-mile distance.) 

After a career-threatening hip injury derailed her Olympic year in 2012, she came back to Boston and posted another top-10 finish in 2014, and then a pair of fourth-place results in 2015 and ’17 sandwiched around her trip to the 2016 Rio Olympics.

And it was before last year’s race that she talked openly about her goal of winning the world's oldest annual marathon. She’d led at the halfway point but couldn’t keep up with a blistering pace in the latter stages of the race. 

Still, her disappointment in finishing fourth — and as the second American, behind 23-year-old Jordan Hasay’s impressive debut — said something. So did the bronze medal her ex-Arizona State teammate, Amy Cragg, won at the world championships in August — the first for a U.S. woman since 1983. Ditto Shalane Flanagan’s win at the New York Marathon, which ended a 40-year drought. After all those years of fighting what felt like an impossible battle against the East Africans in a sport rife with doping problems, “when we’re not winning because our girls are clean and the others aren’t,” Larsen said, maybe it was time. 

“The last couple years, you felt it,” she said Monday. “The excitement was building and it’s not ‘if” its ‘who’ — ‘Which one is gonna win it?’”

'I was feeling horrible'

Not many were picking Linden, frankly. Hasay and Flanagan and Molly Huddle — fresh off a U.S.-record half-marathon effort in January — were the ones getting the attention leading up to this race. (One that Linden loves so much she named her golden retriever puppy "Boston" last summer.)

“The pre-race hype surrounded a lot of other people,” Hanson said, “and I think it probably played into her hands a little bit.”

So did the weather, which was too much to bear for many of the world’s best marathoners. Of elite entries this year, 23 runners didn’t even finish the race. And Linden admits she figured she’d join them, even telling Flanagan around the 6-mile mark she was not long for the race. 

“I was feeling horrible,” Linden said. “And I kind of nudged her and said, ‘Hey, there’s a good chance I’m gonna drop out today, so if you need something — block the wind, whatever — lemme know.’”

So Flanagan took her up on it, with the pace dragging and nature calling, just before the halfway point in the race. She tapped Linden on the shoulder and wondered aloud if now was a good time to take a bathroom break at the nearest port-a-potty. (“I was basically asking her like she’s my mom,” Flanagan laughed.) Linden said sure, then hung back as Flanagan made a pit stop before rejoining the race, drafting behind her Olympic teammate as they worked their way back to the lead pack of seven runners. 

A few miles later, as Ethiopia’s Mamitu Daska made her move, opening up a nearly 30-second lead on the field, Linden decided she’d try to help Huddle giving chase. And somewhere along the way, Linden realized she was in third or fourth place, “so I probably shouldn’t drop out.”

She also reminded everyone something the dominant African distance runners discovered long ago, and an idea the Hansons have tried to foster here at home with a collection of former collegiate standouts and lesser-known grinders.

“When you work together,” Linden said, “you never know what’s gonna happen.”

What happened next, though, was something she’ll never forget. And something Larsen promises "will change her life." 

Linden has lived Boston for more than a decade now, and “she knows every crack and crevice in this Boston course,”

Hanson says, from Hopkinton to Heartbreak Hill and everything that comes after. But once she’d chased down the leaders — the Newton Hills were too much for Deska, and Kenya’s Gladys Chesir was spent, too — there were still five miles to go. And to hear Linden explain it, she was running in fear from that point, thinking, “When am I gonna get chewed up and spit out the back.”

The wind was standing her up at times and she was unaware the 6-minute miles she was putting down were actually putting distance between her and the field.

“It was kind of comical how slow we were running,” said Linden, whose winning time was the slowest in 40 years at Boston but still more than 4 minutes better than the next-fastest woman in the field Monday, Sarah Sellers, a complete unknown who was shocked to find herself among the leaders, let alone pocketing a $75,000 prize check.

But this was no laughing matter yet, and Linden wasn't thinking about her $150,000 prize down the stretch. Not even when she made that final left turn onto Boylston Street with the finish line in sight, the rain-soaked crowd letting her know she was all alone. 

“It wasn’t until the last couple steps, and then it was, ‘Oh, this is for real,’” Linden said, who finally dropped that stoic gaze and pumped her fist in the air, then blew a kiss to the crowd. “And then you break the tape and you’re, like, ‘This is not what I expected today.’ But it’s absolutely amazing.”

As for what’s next, Linden, who was mobbed in a tearful hug by her husband, and her agent, Josh Cox, just beyond the finish line, said her immediate plans called for a burger and a beer or two Monday night. Maybe some whiskey, too, though that "might be too aggressive tonight,” she joked. Beyond that, she plans to keep racing marathons through the 2020 Olympics.

But some 2,000 miles away, there was another view of what’s to come. Rainsberger was thrilled to finally pass the torch, especially to “a Michigan girl” who “epitomizes all that I believe in.” And as she welcomed Linden to the club, the 56-year-old coach and trainer couldn’t help but revel in the significance of the moment, one that hits home in more ways than one. 

Her daughter, Katie, is an All-American distance runner as a sophomore at Oregon now, and this star-spangled Patriots’ Day result, well, “It’s going to plant that seed of hope and possibility, even for my own daughter,” Rainsberger said. “It’s like, ‘Yeah, we’re back, baby!’ And that is so awesome.”